But don’t go to Times Square, unless you go early on a Sunday morning when the lights look cheap and dull against the powerful sunlight and the entire theater district looks like a deserted war zone, with Playbill issues and McDonald’s wrappers drifting along in the breeze. Taxis cruise, like the rescue boats in The Titanic, looking for survivors from Saturday night. Sit on the wide red steps in the main square and realize that this image, of McDonald’s wrappers and bright lights, is America to the rest of the world.
Go to Washington Square Park between 9 and 9:30am on a Tuesday morning. Walk down University Ave. between 8th St. and W. 4th St. and listen to the NYU Timekeeper yell out angrily, “9:23! You got seven minutes! You better hurry up!” to the swarm of youth rushing to the buildings around the park. Notice that only a few of these students wear purple and they have faces from Boston and Newark and Singapore and India and Puerto Rico and San Jose and Toronto and Nepal. They are students from and of the world, and that’s why they have ended up here, drawn to the concrete and coffee and stress.
Go briefly to the Barnes and Noble at Union Square. Go straight to the third floor and look out of the windows at the square and the farmer’s market. The tourists will be milling around no matter what day you go. Sit down at the table with your sugary coffee and watch the lady next to you do a crossword puzzle. Watch the student a few tables away give a puzzled look to a Kaplan’s GMAT book. Watch the teenage boy in the plaid shirt giggle nervously on the phone while talking to his boyfriend.
But to smell books and feel them and wonder where they are from, go to Strand on Broadway and 12th St. Browse the outside racks of books on sale for $2.50. Allot hours for Strand.
Take the E uptown and get off at Roosevelt Ave.- Jackson Heights. Emerge from the subway station up into the world, with Shahrukh Khan’s face on a billboard in front of you, advertising a watch, and welcoming you to the most diverse area in the world (literally). Abhishek and Aishwarya will be around as well. Go to the DVD store directly underneath Abhishek Bachchan and ask the man
behind the counter for the newest Bollywood movies. He will look at you suspiciously at first because he will think you are a cop, but he will eventually pull out a binder with a list of the newest movies. He will give you each DVD for $2; the print will be shaky but it will be worth it. The next time you come to Jackson Heights for your $6 plate of nihari, he will recognize you instantly.
Don’t worry too much about going to the Rainbow Room, because even thinking about it costs a few bucks. Take the money you save by keeping it out of your mind, and buy an
extra pot of shir chai to-go from Bamiyan on 26th and 3rd to give to someone you love. When you get there, make sure to sit on the cushioned tables close to the floor by the floor-length windows facing the street. Order Afghan bread and yogurt, Lowand Chalow (don’t bother trying to share, it’s too good for that) and a pot of shir chai. The food and chai will taste like relaxation. The atmosphere will force you to have deep conversations, and Gramercy will be just quiet enough to allow it. The music will remind you of Bollywood in the 60’s and 70’s which, let’s face it, was probably the best Bollywood era.. Allot at least two hours to this haven because, like New York, it will be excrutiatingly painful to leave.